A right royal week, part one: the Garden Party
We had a rather exciting few days last week. Her Majesty the Queen was in Scotland for the week, fulfilling her usual busy round of engagements with Prince Philip at her side. My family – and in particular, our six-year-old son – found our week affected by her presence in more ways than one.
It started for us on Tuesday, when my husband and I attended the annual royal Garden Party at the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh. We are lucky enough to be able to go to this every year, as my husband is a member of the Royal Company of Archers, the Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland. Many of the Archers are serving officers or ex-army and would know exactly what to do in a crisis, but their duties are ceremonial, consisting of providing a guard for the Sovereign during her formal engagements in Scotland. Dressed in spiffy dark green uniforms which have barely changed since the 1860s, they have, dare I say it, a distinct air of Gilbert and Sullivan about them. They wear eagle’s feathers in their bonnets and carry long bows when on duty but, oddly, no arrows. I suppose if the Queen were to be rushed by a terrorist (heaven forbid) at the Garden Party, the Royal Company would just have to poke him with the end of a bow, or perhaps tickle him into submission with their feathers.
I am being irreverent. The Archers have a venerable history, are actually expected to know how to shoot (with a bow and arrow of course) and they hold regular archery competitions. Should you want to know more about the Royal Company, you can read about them here.
For me, of course, the perk of my husband’s involvement is an otherwise undeserved invitation to the Garden Party. Usually my husband is on duty, which for him means that he has to do a lot of standing to attention while ignoring the throng of people breathing down his neck for a glimpse of the Queen, and for me means that I drift around the lawns feeling a bit of a spare part. But this year was special. For the first time, we went to the Garden Party together, as he was not called up for duty. As a result it was much more fun and sociable. Once through the police security at the gate, we wandered across the beautiful gardens behind the palace, through the ruins of the medieval abbey that was destroyed at the Reformation, and found a plum spot for royal-watching at the foot of the stairs down which the Queen comes from the palace to the party.
Royal-watching is the essential point of the Garden Party, I suppose. Looking at the Queen as she stood on the steps as we sang the National Anthem, and then watching the crowd watching the Queen all afternoon, I was struck by the fact that she has spent almost her entire life being gawped at. For her, it is normal that hundreds of people should be craning their necks to catch a glimpse of her as she chats to a stranger, or standing on tiptoes to peer at her as she has a cup of tea. It is a surreal fishbowl that she lives in, but she swims in it with grace and friendly charm.
Perhaps it helps a little that almost everyone Her Majesty encounters is well-disposed towards her. Certainly at the Garden Party, all the guests are aware of how lucky they are to have been invited and are disposed to enjoy their day. This royal party is the opposite of elitist: guests come from all walks of life and all parts of Scotland and beyond. They have been invited for any number of reasons. Some are serving in the armed forces, many are carers, charity workers or people who have made some other contribution to their community. Some are hangers-on like me, partners of those on duty in one capacity or another. Some – as I discovered in conversation with a lady from Motherwell at last year’s party – are winners in the office ballot of tickets provided for local council workers, and have come up in a coach-load for a grand day out.
In addition to the strange fascination of seeing the Queen, people-watching, or rather dress-watching, at the Garden Party is endlessly entertaining. There are ladies in pearls and the sort of restrained tailoring that whispers of old money. There are large girls clumping about in platform shoes with skirts that barely cover their bottoms. There are top hats, peaked caps and tiny explosions of feathers on heads. There are uniforms from every part of the Commonwealth, Asian women in elegant embroidered saris, bishops in purple, Africans in floor length robes and of course Scotsmen in kilts of every tartan known to weavers. If only we were allowed to take photos!
And to cap it all, there’s the tea. I don’t know how they do it, but every year the catering staff at the Palace provide a truly royal feast for hundreds of guests. (How do they manage to make every cup of tea taste freshly brewed when they are serving frantically all afternoon? I wish I knew: then the teas I provide for our guided tours at Castle Beastie might be rather better!) For non tea drinkers, there are glasses of elderflower cordial or good strong iced coffee. The food is irresistible: tiny fresh scones with dollops of strawberry jam, for example; slivers of home-made ginger cake, local ice cream, weeny coffee eclairs bursting with cream and – naturally – the most delicious little cucumber sandwiches. The secret of the sandwiches is fresh mint leaves. White bread cut into fingers, lightly buttered, filled with peeled cucumber slivers and scattered with mint. Cut off the crusts and you have a sandwich fit for the Queen, and just the thing to fill a little gap on a humid afternoon.
All in all, then, it is a treat to be invited to a royal Garden Party, especially for a hanger-on. My mother always used to tell me that I’d never be invited to tea with the Queen if I didn’t learn good table manners. I suppose her warning worked! My boys, especially the younger one, are very envious of their parents going off to the Garden Party every year (children are not allowed), so I am using the same ruse on them. Perhaps one day – if they remember to say please and thank you and to keep their elbows off the table – they might receive an invitation of their very own to tea with the Queen.
Funnily enough, though… the very next day after the Garden Party, our younger son did receive a rather special letter in the post. It came in a large cream envelope, and it was post-marked ‘EiiR, Buckingham Palace, London’. I’ll tell you all about that in the next chapter of our right royal week.
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